Parkers Art Supplies The Rocks Sydney – Taking over the family business was not Derek Parker’s calling at first. In his twenties he was involved in tourism and aid in Africa and was somewhat indifferent to his place in the long line of suppliers to Australia’s most famous artists. But the early death of his father and the birth of his own children brought him to Parkers Art Supplies to be mentored by his Aunt Lindsey and Grandpa Clary as a future manager.
Now, thirty years later, he is overseeing an extraordinary centennial celebration. For over a hundred years the Parker family has served Sydney artists and galleries through a business based in the Rocks district, still owned and operated by direct descendants of Sydney Albert (SA) Parker.
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Parkers Art Supplies today has a large, well-stocked warehouse on the corner of the historic sandstone quarry in Argyll Cut, a small outlet at the National Art School in Darlinghurst (NAS) and a frame and canvas stretching workshop in Redfern. Derek shuttles between them in one of the city’s most underrated delivery vehicles, a wood-paneled 1977 Volkswagen Combi. With around twenty employees (many artists) serving customers, the family has built a reputation for treating people and products with respect, and countless customers enjoy a long relationship with the store.
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Behind the old sandstone and sable surroundings, the family has adapted to the changes and that keeps them in business, and while Derek can’t brag, this year he’ll find it harder to cut down on meaningful interaction. Parker’s story with Australian art history.
The story begins back in 1886, not in Sydney, but in Melbourne. There, the teenage girl S.A. Parker worked in the photography business with Tom Roberts. When he moved to Sydney he was employed by Parker’s skills as a mounting cutter and in 1917 bought the successful framing business that had been his employer. It wasn’t until a few years later that Parkers put the name on the door (postponing the centenary celebration until 2019), but business went from strength to strength, with sumptuous, hand-crafted gilt picture frames to suit all tastes. George Lambert and Hans Heysen were frequent customers.
As the influence of modernism changed artists’ preferences, Parker created less elaborate but uniquely tailored frames to fit the character of individual works by artists such as Margaret Preston, Ralph Balson, and Grace Cossington Smith. Her 1928-29
One of Derek’s favorite frames with a textured finish that has subtly enhanced the work for generations of NSW gallery visitors.
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In its second generation, Parkers was a leader in fine art framing, but also served the photo framing market with clients including Kodak and Woolworths. At its peak, the docks employed forty people in a frame factory on Sussex Street, taking raw lumber from the ground floor and turning it into finished products on the upper levels. Parker ran an art gallery in George Street premises on the Rocks of artists including Thea Proctor and Henry Dungar.
The art supply store, which is now the core of the Parkers business, was founded in the 1970s by Derek’s father Philip, but it took considerable work to establish the extensive stock available today. In my father’s time,” explains Derek, “there were two brands offering oils and one acrylic, and when I took over I had the opportunity to take the store in a more progressive, contemporary direction.
“We didn’t take full advantage of new products like acrylic paints in the 60s and 70s. There was also an increase in the work that people did—people coming from New York were getting rolls of linen that were not just two feet wide, but three. Or visitors from overseas are looking for a type of color we’ve never seen in Australia. Today we have eighteen oil paint and twelve acrylic paint ranges available.
To ensure a supply of quality products, Derek visited manufacturers around the world, from giant factories to small, local businesses. Behind each shelf of products lie unique manufacturing and sourcing conditions, and he saw the struggle of small companies to maintain traditional manufacturing methods in the face of a huge, homogenous market for cheap products.
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“One of my passions is handmade paper. It has character and texture that can never be duplicated by machine. I have been to many mills, but unfortunately every year there are fewer and fewer of them. We used to sell linen and cotton paper, two by two meters, from Spain. The weight of lifting the toilet paper was… well, let’s just say, every person’s arm muscles are highly developed.
“That paper was withdrawn from production. We could do it in France until the Moulin de Pomby caught fire at their mill. They borrowed from the bank, the GFC came and the bank sold the mill to a coffee filter paper company. The world of coffee gained, but the world of fine paper lost.
“The good news,” he concludes, “is that the Spanish are back to making paper, and it’s a work of art.”
Stocking items like this in a brick-and-mortar store where artists can see what they’re buying makes Parkers a destination. In his role as a supplier of materials, Derek is sometimes guided by artists and sometimes takes the initiative, introducing them to a medium that expands new possibilities for their work. Working with artists excites him and has given him some of his fondest memories.
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“My earliest memories are of the buzz and excitement of open nights at the Parker Gallery, the regular sell-out shows of Uncle Colin Parker and family friend Robert Wilson. I had the privilege of researching Lloyd Rees when I got my license as a teenager. I hitched them to the back of my little ute and drove them across the harbor bridge at Lane Cove. She was a wonderful, warm person who would invite you for a cup of tea. And he was happy to get his new canvas.’
“There have also been wonderful coincidences when one artist meets another in the shop. Often, it is the first meeting with some people. Artists who are passionate about the material have always worked for us. They often start working for us five days a week and as their careers grow, we adjust the roster to allow them to work part-time. Although we have lost a few people, we have managed to maintain a loyal staff of dedicated staff.
Like S. A. Parker, Derek makes a living serving artists. His daughter Isabella is studying at NAS and has worked part-time at the NAS store for six years, continuing the Parkers’ lineage once again. But free to follow his own path, Derek has no intention of imposing a succession plan. “There’s a sense that maybe it’s not just the fourth generation – there could be another,” he ventures. But it’s early.
Publication “S. A. Parker Framing Works, produced by the AGNSW Research Library and Archives, provided much of the factual information referenced in this article.
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